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Category Archives: Winter Warriors

Dispatches from Knife’s Edge

Dispatches from Knife’s Edge

Knife. So they decided to officially call this monster Knife. Winter Storm Knife, cutting across the heart of Erie County.

Maybe it’s meant to evoke some sort of ferocity, but I can’t help but think of it as a little bit kitsch. In Western New York, no one ever refers to winter storms by their proper names. We just refer to them by the features of them that everyone remembers. There is the Blizzard of ’77, for example. That’s all we need as an automatic reference to the legendary Blizzard of ’77, which everyone born after that year knows about. The Blizzard of ’77 is the standard by which every other bad winter storm is judged in Buffalo. I was born four years after that disaster, but I’m old enough to have seen some pretty hefty storms. I have recollections of the famous ’85 blizzard, when then-Mayor James Griffin voiced his battle cry for waiting out snowstorms: “Stay inside, grab a six-pack, and watch a good football game.” There was the Gridlock Monday storm of 2000, which dropped 35 inches and forced everyone driving home at the time to abandon their cars and walk home. There was the White Christmas storm of 2001, an anomaly in an otherwise mild winter which deposited 83 inches onto the city in four days – pretty much the entire snow measurement for an entire winter.

This current arctic blast currently dropped 75 inches in a little under two days, and it kills me that this is only the second-highest snowfall I’ve ever been in. (So far.) This is definitely beer and football weather; my school has been closed every day this week except Monday, which is the one day I don’t have classes. And so, with all my homework done, I’ve settled into backburner mode, except my version of beer and football so far has been tea and basketball. I managed to get out once to take a few photos during he calm before the current, second wave of the storm hit.

There’s a travel ban in place, so there won’t be any going anywhere until it’s time to visit the grocery store. When things clear up a little bit, I might try to go outside for a quick walk, but that’s out of the question for now.

You would never know right now that most of yesterday and today were sunny. This storm wasn’t simply some snow – it was a squall; a whiteout so complete that in my community, going out to shovel meant not being able to see the street.

There’s an odd process to having cabin fever. When you first realize you’re trapped at home, it’s easy to shrug, smile, call into work, and sit back with a nice beer to enjoy your day off. Snow days rarely go beyond that first day, and by the end, you’re refreshed and happy. You start getting sick of the walls by the second day, though, and not getting to go out starts getting boring. By the third day, you just want the snow to stop so you can get to the bar across the street. I tend to look for a little bit of variety – it’s a reason I like to be outside. Although I’m not at my breaking point right now, my routine during Winter Storm Knife has involved a lot of reruns of How I Met Your Mother and Futurama, college basketball and New York Knicks games, and movies. I usually have my workout done in the late morning or early afternoon, which knocks an hour to an hour and a half off my day between the workout itself and the fact that I’m usually so wiped out afterward that I end up napping at some point.

At some point, I started having some odd thoughts. What is this sudden obsession with putting Fritos on everything now? Is someone out to destroy bacon?

In any case, the city was well-prepared for the storm. It’s Buffalo, and snow happens, and getting hit with it in July wouldn’t surprise us. Before the storm came on Monday, I had an appointment with a podiatrist scheduled, which happened to be very good luck on my part because I was able to bicycle to his office. I was caught in the rain (yes, rain) on the way back, but it was nothing I hadn’t endured during my messenger years. The news outlets had been reporting on this storm for a few days by then, and it was due to hit on Monday night. We knew what we were in for; by late evening, everyone was already tuned into the broadcast stations to see the list of the next day’s closings. I think we were expecting a big whiteout but an otherwise minor emergency; two feet, two and a half tops.

You know things are bad when the newspaper delivery lets up, and this is our third day without a morning newspaper. The owner of the Buffalo Bills started offering $10 an hour plus tickets to the football game to drop by and dig out Ralph Wilson Stadium. Then he was shamed for it while drivers were advised to ignore the offer; people gave up when the snow didn’t stop; and now it was just reported that we’re not going to have a local football game to watch while we drink this week; the game is being moved to a different location altogether.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to tell on the macro level because no one here has been able to see much of anything. I know only what I’ve seen on TV: The Weather Channel is trapped at an inn in Hamburg. One of the local TV stations was trapped for hours at a gas station. Both are giving us periodic updates, mainly as filler: “Hey everyone, it’s still snowing!” Now we know what they must have felt like in the south last winter. All that’s left to do now is wait for the snow to let up and look for ourselves to pop up on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report soon.

Sucking Wind

I didn’t think I had been off my bicycle for that long. It was April, and I hadn’t been on my bike since December, which for me is a long absence, but one I though I could recover from pretty easily. I had rode several miles of bicycle trails in Illinois/Missouri during my vacation, after all, and when I got my current bicycle, I hadn’t been riding in a couple of months at the time. But on my first ride after moving back, I was able to get to downtown Buffalo – about eight miles of slanted, sometimes hilly terrain – without too much trouble.

When I picked up my bike for my first ride in the Buffalo area for 2012, I had a much more difficult go of it. I had two strikes against me at the time: The first was that it was extremely windy, and the second was that my chain was in dire need of some grease – but, although I wasn’t setting out for the city that day, I barely made it a couple of miles before I began inhaling air by the liter. After struggling down the shorter stretch of Center Road – one of the flattest, straightest, and most easily bikeable stretches of asphalt outside the city itself – a nauseating feeling overcame me, and I suddenly struggled for a decent intake of air. Center Road has a very small strip mall at the closer end, just before it merges with Seneca Street, the street that goes into the city proper.

I was probably between a half mile and a mile from South Buffalo and I had to turn back. Ordinarily, that’s a ride I make very easily without breaking a hair on my head, let alone a lung.

Maybe the exercise I got during my recent month out of town – which was mainly distance walking, with a handful of bike rides in Saint Louis – wasn’t enough to compensate for my massive food intake during the time. I got addicted to biscuits, drank far more alcohol than my body is used to, and sampled several of the unique food staples in New Orleans – gumbo, Ambita, po’boys, and gris gris. I did that stereotyped New Orleans tourist thing in which, at one point, I was drunk and walking through the French Quarter at 3:30 AM back to where I was staying.

In spite of that, I would have figured my body would be better prepared for the bicycling season. It wasn’t like I was inactive during the winter months in which the weather and roads kept me off my bike. I ran virtually every day throughout January and February and covered a half mile up a 6.5 degree incline every morning before my shift began, while lifting weights and eating small doses of protein-rich foods immediately afterward. When my assignment ended and I kept putting off my normal pushup routine, my arms didn’t suffer quite so much when I began it again.

I’m hoping to do the Ride for Roswell if I can scrap up the necessary $150 in donations. I was originally planning to tackle the Century course, but that seems out of the question now, and not just because of its insane starting time.

Buffalo’s Occupiers Get it Right

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you already know about the Occupy movement. They’re out camping in the streets, angry and frustrated and trying to get some of Wall Street’s insane cash flow back into Main Street, where 99 percent of the people actually live.

Generally, I agree with the idea, but I’m a little suspicious of the Occupiers for a few reasons: First of all, I have a very rooted suspicion that a few too many of these guys can’t exactly qualify as 99 Percenters themselves, but as well-off trust fund hipsters looking for ways to rebel. Second, I KNOW a lot of these people aren’t there as part of a giant 99 Percent mass which wants to take back Main Street, but as representatives of more radical leftist factions pushing a very, VERY narrow agenda and who won’t budge on it. This is liable to cause a number of divisions within the Occupy movement and, in fact, it already has. Buffalo and New York City have both splintered on agenda differences. Thanks, Occupiers, that was fun. You can go back to your universities now.

Now, I have a lot of praise for the Buffalo Occupiers, or rather, the original group that started the movement outside of Buffalo City Hall. Whereas the other Occupy groups did everything in their power to call everyone on the outside racists, Occupy Buffalo knows what unity actually is. Instead of trying to divvy up their agendas, they’ve been concentrating on the big picture.

Its gone shamefully underreported, probably because this is Buffalo and not some glamor city with a ton of nightlife and artlife. But if the Occupy movement wants any chance in hell of changing anything, it would be wise to adopt the Occupy Buffalo’s tactics and avoid alienating all of their potential allies.

While the Police at other Occupy protests have been assaulting and arresting screaming protesters, one of the first things Occupy Buffalo did was recognize that the Police are among the 99 Percent too, and were probably afraid of how they might be affected by the budget. So the local Occupiers held a vigil in appreciation of the Buffalo Police Department, and the result is that the Buffalo Police are leaving Occupiers alone. The BPD and Occupiers are, in fact, on excellent terms with each other. There has been nary even a faint whisper of violence, and when an anonymous donor gave the Occupiers a large dome to help them stick it out through the winter, the Police let them set it up without incident.

The Occupiers have also agreed to let the city provide the necessary maintenance on their spot. This was an official agreement; the Occupiers were invited into City Hall to make it formal. Whenever maintenance is needed, the Occupiers move out for the few hours it takes the city services to clean up.

The Occupiers have even managed to reach out to the Tea Party. Instead of taking the regular path of most of the Occupy movements and saying everyone not with them is a horrible racist, Occupy Buffalo managed to recognize one of the goals of the original Tea Party: Try to end government waste. I’m not sure how the Tea Party has responded, but it was a smart thing for the Occupiers to recognize a major goal they have in common with ideological opponents.

Occupy Buffalo is a true throwback movement to the 60’s. Instead of the us-vs.-them mentality employed by virtually everyone in any kind of political arena today, Occupy Buffalo is taking the general idea of the people vs. the corporate and government interests that united the country in the protests of the 60’s. It’s too bad Occupy Buffalo split, but the Occupy movement everywhere has lessons to learn from Buffalo.

Summer Days

I moved to Chicago during the winter, in a February, to be exact. I believed without any doubt that all of my years hardening myself from Buffalo winters was good enough preparation for anything Chicago winters could throw at me.

Turned out I was right. But that didn’t stop all of the people I met in Chicago from making excuses: “This winter wasn’t one of the bad ones! Wait until one of the bad ones!” “You haven’t seen the bulk of them!” When it finally became obvious that I wasn’t going to waver, the excuses came again: “Well, you spent your life in BUFFALO!” This was just as annoying because people who compliment themselves on how good they are at toughing out winter weather should be able to take anything thrown at them. I was in Chicago for the giant blizzard that hit in February 2011, an 18-incher which kept the city hoarding and indoors for three days. The primary veins of the city were dead, and on the initial night, people on Lake Shore Drive were trapped. The one time I saw people getting trapped in traffic in Buffalo, the people literally got out of their cars, walked home, and returned the next day to dig out.

Buffalo has a weather advantage in summer; the giant lake which annually dumps over 80 inches of snow on Buffalo plays the role of a giant air conditioner in the summer. The city’s hottest average summer month is July, in which the average high is a balmy 80 degrees. The humidity can make things tough, but as far as ordinary temperatures go, Buffalo has never hit three digits. Years literally go by between 90-degree days. The pleasant temperatures make even high humidity somewhat bearable.

I always told Chicagoans that if they’re trying to scare Buffalonians off with bad weather stories, forget the winters. Tell us how hellish the summers can get. Chicago hits 100 degrees every year, or at least it feels like it, and the humidity would shame the best Satan could ever concoct on his best days.

There were times I was hoping the gale force winds from Lake Michigan’s direction would throttle me, acting like a cool life breath as I roasted, soaked, and melted through the worst of it. There were days when I didn’t even mind the rain very much, which is saying something given the fact that I look for shelter at the lightest sprinkle. I always sweated the hardest in humidity, and would spend more time at the water fountains, buying sports and energy drinks, and trying to get myself into the air-conditioned buildings, believing those caught in the Buffalo summer humidity had it made.

A Tale of Two Winter Cities

Springtime in Buffalo was met with Ma Nature’s traditional greeting for New York state: Snow. Seven inches to be precise, along with a nod in the national news. Because snow in Buffalo is so unusual and the people in Buffalo run around outside screaming “Hark, the sky is falling!” I’m sure.

Must have been a very slow news day. Buffalo ends up in the national news at least a couple of times every winter for being completely buried. If seven inches dropped in North Carolina or Georgia or Maryland, it would be a complete burial by the standards of those places. But up here in the harsh winter crannies of New York, seven inches is barely a dusting. Even pausing to brush the car off, seven inches doesn’t so much as slow down rush hour traffic.

As it happens, I was still in Chicago during the “Snowpocalypse” in February. The coverage of that winter storm was the kind reserved for real disasters like the recent tsunami in Japan or Hurricane Katrina. The city was in the news for a week. A week afterward, the Chicago weather was back in the news again because the temperature had jumped up to the high 50’s and nearly all the snow was melted.

The Snowpocalypse dumped over 20 inches onto Chicago and the populace didn’t know what to do. My opinion of Chicago’s vaunted broad-shouldered winter toughness is rather low, and one of the things I quickly learned was that the reason so many people believe in the myth of winter-tough Chicago was because Chicagoans constantly compliment themselves on it. They are classic cases of talking the talk but saying “I could, but I don’t wanna” when challenged to back it up.

I probably wouldn’t be pointing this out if Chicagoans were a bit more honest about their assessment of their ability to weather a winter. But Chicago doesn’t seem to make a distinction between the toughest large metropolis and actual toughness. The city businesses begin to close down if so much as three inches hits the pavement. The city services slow down at the first sign of a snowflake. A few years ago, Chicago ran out of its snow removal budget, and this presented me with two thoughts which I still can’t quite wrap my mind around: That the big, tough, broad-shouldered, windy winter city didn’t have enough foresight to prepare for such a scenario, and that city budgets have whole piles of money set aside for the sole purpose of getting snow out of the way.

Buffalo was always so good at snow removal that I had never stopped to think of it as a city service before. The one time the white stuff piled up faster than the city could remove it was during the infamous Gridlock Monday winter storm of 2000, and that was only because of the rapid pace of the snow buildup and the timing of the storm, which occurred during the evening rush hour. That was the only time I’ve ever seen people in Buffalo spend their nights at their workplaces and schools. Those who were trapped in their cars simply got out and walked, leaving their cars behind to be dug out the following morning. My mother spent the night at her workplace, and I helped dig her car out. My father just barely made it home.

City-slowing winter storms in Buffalo, however, are anomalies. Buffalo gets hit by at least a couple of storms per year which drop 20 inches. We know the drill here and we routinely work it to perfection. 20 inches means it’s time to break out the shovels and snowblowers. It seems the national media makes a bigger deal out of snow in Buffalo than is warranted. It paints pictures of people terrified and confused by the snow, who stock up on canned goods for storms driving snowmobiles to the stores, and sit nervously in front of the traffic reports, waiting for the opening to get out. But the reality in Buffalo is that we break open a cold six-pack, and the only time we watch The Weather Channel is to make fun of the poor bozos in North Carolina as they slam their cars into telephone poles at five mph. (And yes, we really do those things.) Although we frequently do wish for warmer weather, those are arbitrary wishes which are often shrugged off immediately afterward with the phrase “It’s Buffalo, what are ya gonna do?”

As for Chicago – scared, panicky, confused during slight dustings, 20 inches really can be interpreted as the end of the world. The Snowpocalypse made for an interesting look at a post-rapture Chicago. The largest, busiest streets in the city were completely barren for two days. Meanwhile, I grabbed my camera and had fun. The Snowpocalypse contained a simple truth that Chicago is too busy kidding itself to admit: That all those national stereotypes which are applied to snow-buried Buffalo are far better applied to Chicago.